Great Zimbabwe: Was This Lost City The Site Of King Solomon's Mines Or A Centre For The Slave Trade?

Updated: May 31

The only major Iron Age civilization of the southern hemisphere flourished in southern Africa. Was the citadel of Zimbabwe the capital of an empire? Was it the centre for the slave trade? Was it the site of King Solomon's Mines?

Great Zimbabwe is a perfect example of ancient world civilisations
Great Zimbabwe is a perfect example of ancient world civilisations

In the lands between the Zambezi and Orage rivers lie the ruin fields of southern Africa. To date, around 8,000 ruins have been discovered; of these the most remarkable is Great Zimbabwe. The greatest stone monument on the African continent outside Egypt, this impressive complex was built by a culture that flourished before the coming of the Arabs or European settlers.

The Hill Fortress And Great Enclosure

After the rainy season, the ruins are surrounded by green rolling hills and outcrops of rock that overlook valleys of acacia trees. Two main groups of buildings dominate the site. One, located among huge surreal rocks on a hilltop, is known as the Acropolis or Hill Fortress. This seemingly impregnable structure looks down on a large elliptical building, the Great Enclosure, a short distance away in the valley below.

Bounded by a stone wall 253m (830ft) in circumference and ranging in height from 4.9m (16ft) to 10.7m (35ft), the Great Enclosure took an estimated 18,000 man-hours to construct. The walls were built from pieces of granite deliberately cut like bricks and laid without mortar in courses. The outer wall is at least 1.2m (4ft) thick and considerably wider than this in places. Inside, the narrow passageways, three platforms, and many unidentifiable 'rooms'.

The most enigmatic feature of the Enclosure is the conical tower. Close to the outer wall and constructed by the same technique, the tower captures the imagination, not least because it appears to have no function. Without doors, windows, stairs, or any other discernable feature, the tower has given rise to some ingenious theories about its use. Was it a phallic symbol involved in local religious rites or a symbolic grain bin to promote fertility? Perhaps it was a fire-tower for signalling to distant points on the surrounding landscape or a vantage point for observing the moon, stars, and planets.

The History Behind The Ruins

For many centuries, Arab and European explorers sought the fabulous mines of Ophir from which King Solomon obtained his treasures. The legend of the great Christian King Prester John, whose domains included the land of the mines, was known to Portuguese explorers in the 16th century, and they thought Ophir must lie in southern Africa. In 1502, an Arab told a Portuguese trader that Sofala - now a port in modern Mozambique was Ophir.

Inside the ruins of Great Zimbabwe
Inside the ruins of Great Zimbabwe

In 1552, Portuguese historian Joáo de Barros wrote a book, Da Asia, in which he described a stone fortress in Sofala 'in the centre of the mining country'. This fortress had an indecipherable inscription over the door. Built-in stone without mortar, the buildings were called Symbaoe by the local inhabitants, a name close to modern Zimbabwe, Barros believed the buildings were very old and since neither the Arabs nor Africans could read the inscription, of non-African origin.

Great Zimbabwe was almost certainly the centre of a great Bantu-speaking mining nation that thrived until the 15th century. The folklore of the BaLemba, an offshoot of the builders BaVenda tribe in southern Africa who were descended from the builders of Zimbabwe, tells of ancient northern homeland ruled by King Mwali

Mwali lived in a hilltop town whose walls were built with large stones. He was a god-king whom no one was permitted to see, for to lay eyes on him meant death. People could only hear what he spoke to the high priest in a tremendous voice that reverberated in a terrifying manner. On his death, civil strife led to the abandonment of the town and migration to the south where, at the Nzhelele River, they built a new stone-walled capital, Dzata, which still exists today.

Rediscovering Great Zimbabwe

In 1867, Adam Renders, an old hunter living in southern Africa, and Karl Mauch, a German explorer, discovered the ruins and publicised them as The Palace of the Queen of Sheba. In 1891, the first investigator of the ruins, J. Theodore Bent, concluded that the conical tower was the object of phallus worship and that the Great Enclosure had been an astronomical observatory.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Richard Hall, an English lawyer, and journalist surveyed the ruins. He favoured the Queen of Sheba theory on the grounds of the similarity he saw between the Great Enclosure, which he called the Elliptical Temple, and the Temple of Haram of Bilkis in south Arabia.

Pottery from Great Zimbabwe
Pottery from Great Zimbabwe

The English archaeologist David Randall-Maclver excavated parts of the Enclosure and dated them to the period AD 1000 - 1500. Moreover, he dismissed the Queen of Sheba theory as fanciful, since the ruins showed nothing but African origins. In 1929, English archaeologist Gertrude Thompson confirmed Hall's findings. She believed Great Zimbabwe was founded in the 9th century as a trading centre having important links with Arabia, India, and China - fragments of pottery and beads from these places have been found throughout the ruins.

Great Zimbabwe is currently thought to be purely African in design and construction; the ruins show many affinities with the village designs of various southern African tribes. But this does not explain why the builders of Zimbabwe departed from the traditional African materials of wood and earth to build in stone. In the neighbourhood of the ruins were mines from which precious metals were obtained and probably used in trade with other nations. Studies of the ancient gold mines of Zimbabwe by English archaeologist Roger Summers show that there was Indian influence operating there since the same mining methods had been employed at Mysore and in the Kolar district of India.

The most recent research into the mystery of Great Zimbabwe was conducted by Wilfred Mallows, a South African city planner and journalist. He supports the view that it was a major trading centre but also asserts that Zimbabwe was used in the 9th century as a black slave centre for transporting many thousands of Africans to Arabia.

The uniqueness of Great Zimbabwe, its tenuous and fascinating links with Arabia, India, and the Far East, the conflicting stories and theories all conspire to make conclusions open to question. Yet it cannot be denied that Zimbabwe is one of the great ancient monuments of the world and will continue to inspire scholars and romantics alike. Now you have learned of the history of Great Zimbabwe, make sure you read about Chaco Canyon & The History Of The Anasazi People.


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